I did not see Syriana right away because I heard mixed things about it. Some people liked it; some found the many-stranded plot to be an exercise in vacuous storytelling, a remark I found credible because it is my exact opinion of Stephen Gaghan’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic. Well, I’m here to say, the only thing non-sequitur about Syriana is its faux-thriller title. The book upon which the movie is loosely based, See No Evil, would have afforded a better appellation.

No matter. Stephen Gaghan, who directed and wrote this excellent film, is fully rehabilitated in my eyes. He cribs Soderbergh to the nth degree, but no matter. Syriana is a first-rate whodunnit. Or whosgonnadunnit. Or summit. No matter. It cuts open the disparate strands of competing interests that swirl around an oil deal and doesn’t try to over-simplify them. The scenes are written without helpful expositional chit-chat, forcing lazy American audiences (surely the ones who knocked the plot of this quasi-tragedy) to fill in the pieces and second-guess the self-interests of the characters. It does not yield traditional dramatic conflict like the preachier Crash, opting instead for a mystery/suspense angle right up until the final pawns are sacrificed. I call it a quasi-tragedy: the spider catches the fly, but whether this is a good or bad or everyday occurence is up to you, the viewer, to decide.

Looking back at the American films of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, it seems that many were on the pulse of current events, with strong acting work built upon sharp writing and unapologetic direction. Have we traveled so far back in terms of filmmaking for a film like this to be a welcome anomaly, a throwback to the era of Five Easy Pieces, Nashville or The Parallax View? Clearly, I stand in favor of intelligent films like Syriana. It would be an impeachable offense for me to not recommend them to you, my intelligent and discerning reader (hi Mom!).

Seriously, if the Academy has any taste at all, they will make this movie an Oscar contender. Of course, I will not hold my breath: Junebug, my favorite film of this year, should also be competing for awards that don’t begin with “Independent Spirit in…” No matter. Syriana is in theaters now, and shorter than King Kong.